A Grotesque Image of Something In Ourselves

“We have been Banter’d and Bubbl’d and Cheated and Banter’d and Bubbl’d”

English Drinking Song (1700)

The Washington American was a small-town newspaper published at Washington on the Brazos, a long defunct river landing about twenty miles from here.  In 1856, the newspaper printed among its advertisement a standing wager by Henry G. Hudson of Boonville, then the seat of this county, but also now defunct.  Hudson’s wager was that he was the best marksman in the State of Texas, and he placed no limit on the stakes, although he did stipulate handicapping for age.  Hudson was cocky for a man of fifty-six years, but he knew that time is unkind to even the deadliest deadeye.  Here is the advertisement.

I do not know if a gentleman sportsman rose to this challenge.  Perhaps not, since the advertisement ran for several months.  And I do not know what became of this feisty old codger, although I think of him and smile whenever I cross the bridge over the creek that still bears his name.  We feisty old codgers need to stick together and encourage one another, even when one of us does it from the grave.

When I first saw Hudson’s advertisement, I was interested in his use of the word banter as an intransitive verb that seems to mean wager.  I knew banter as a noun that denoted an idle, flippant and teasing conversation, and I of course understood that to converse in this manner was bantering.  What I have since found, however, is that banter originally meant to ridicule through parody or burlesque.

It has been many years since I heard anyone use the word burlesque, but when I first learned it as boy, I understood it to mean a striptease act.  This I naturally found very interesting, and the word burlesque for many years conjured up nothing but images of footlights, flesh and a flashing feather boa.  Without growing any less prurient, I eventually came to understand that a striptease act was called burlesque, not because the lady on the stage was half-naked, but because she exaggerated all the poses, gestures and expressions of feminine seduction.  Her pouting, sashaying, and tantalizing teasing was a parody of what the men in the audience went through at the hands of their fiancés, wives and mistresses.

Burlesque Dancers, Reginald Marsh (c. 1939)

When the word banter first appeared in English at the end of the seventeenth century, it had the same meaning as burlesque.  To banter a person was to mock their manners by parody.  The word parody, by the way, comes from the Greek parōidia, which literally means at the side of an ode.  So, you may imagine an “Ode to My Lover’s Dimples” printed in the center of a page, and a rude parody titled “Ode to My Lover’s Pimples” scribbled beside it in the margin.  An ode exalts its subject with high-flown words; a parody pulls it down with banter and burlesque.

To banter was therefore, as I said, to ridicule by exaggeration.  And so it is that I find these lines from Butler’s Hudibras annotated with this footnote: “these and the following lines are a banter upon romance writers.”

“That Dames by jail-delivery
Of errant knights have been set free,
When by enchantment they have been,
And sometimes for it too, laid in;
Is that which Knights are bound to do
By order, oath, and honor too:
For what are they renowned and famous else,
But aiding of distressed Damosels?”

It is very tempting to use this quotation to segue into a digression on the white knights of our own day, and then to dilate on Butler’s trenchant observation that Dames very often put themselves in need of rescuing by their own folly, but this is a serious and not a bantering post.

With this in mind I have come to believe that Henry G. Hudson was perhaps an even feister old codger than I first supposed, since it now appears that his boastful advertisement was a burlesque of all the swaggering gunslingers in Boonville, Washington, and Texas generally.  Having no reason to think otherwise, I will continue to believe Mr. Hudson was a good shot, and that he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was, but my smile when crossing Hudson Creek in future will be even wider, because I now know he was twisting their noses.

* * * * *

What are we to make of my epigram.  To save you the trouble of scrolling up, here it is again.  It is the refrain of an indecorous political drinking song of 1700, and it makes use of the then new word of banter.

“We have been Banter’d and Bubbl’d and Cheated and Banter’d and Bubbl’d”

To be “bubbled” was in those days to deceived by a beautiful illusion, a meaning remembered to this day in the expression “burst my bubble.”  You must imagine a little girl reaching out to grasp a shimmering soap bubble, only to have it pop in her face and vanish in thin air.  To imagine her being bubbled, you must imagine her doing this again, and again, and again.  The expression “living in a bubble” also descends from this original, although many people nowadays seem to believe it means securely enveloped by a rugged protective membrane.  Living in a bubble actually means living in a beautiful illusion that is just about to pop and vanish.

Here are some lines from a poem published a few years after the song about being bantered, bubbled and cheated.

“Long had the British realm, by faction ruled,
Been cheated, bubbled, ridiculed and fooled.”*

Many citizens of more recent realms feel very much the same.  We are indeed routinely bubbled, and routinely astonished when, like that little girl, the promised prize pops in our faces and leaves nothing behind but air.  And like that little girl who squeals with frustration as grandpa blows another bubble, we do this again, and again, and again.

But how are we bantered?

Well, you will recall that I said banter originally had the same meaning as burlesque or parody, and that it meant to ridicule by exaggeration.  I gave the example of a strip-tease artist vamping on a stage in a grotesque parody of the poses, gestures and expressions of human courtship.  A strip-tease artist thereby mocks those poses, gestures and expressions, but she at the same time mocks all the drooling fools in the theater.

And that is where the key to the bantering of citizens by their politicians will be found.  Our politicians transfix and beguile and mock us with a grotesque image of something in ourselves.

Minsky’s New Gotham Chorus, Reginald Marsh (1936)

 

*) Anon., A Short Account of the Expiring Parliament (1713)

One thought on “A Grotesque Image of Something In Ourselves

  1. Pingback: A Grotesque Image of Something In Ourselves | Reaction Times

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